On the Methodological Principles of Science

It is inherent in the methodological principles of science that certain fundamental questions are not posed. Physics, as it is practiced in modern times, characteristically does not really ask what matter is, biology does not ask what life is, and psychology does not ask what the soul is; instead, these terms just vaguely circumscribe the area one intends to investigate.[1]

Carl Friedrich von Weizsächer, The Unity of Nature.

I argue we can extend the value of such a profound consideration, made by the German physicist and philosopher of Science Carl Friederich von Weizsächer, to other domains of human knowledge. As an architect, I can say that this is also true for the concept of space in Architecture: space is a central topic for Architecture, which, since the end of the XIX century, is traditionally considered by architects, critics and historians ‘the art and science of space’;[2] despite that, in the disciplinary domain of Architecture, space is just a datum and not something to inquire into, so Architecture does not really ask what space is; much less, it does not ask what place is, or what dwelling means. Only current environmental questions are making architects slightly more sensitive about such important issues – I mean questions of place and dwelling, especially – more from an empirical or practical perspective rather than theoretical.

As far as I know, the same consideration is also appropriate for the concepts of space and place in disciplines like Geography or Human Geography, which focus on those two concepts but never really ask what place and space are, in the sense that there is not philosophical speculation about them, about their ultimate source of meaning: they are just data – terms – that ‘vaguely circumscribe the area one intends to investigate’, to put it with von Weizsächer.

It seems philosophical speculation, even within specific disciplinary boundaries, is too often left to philosophers who venture into other’s disciplinary fields, rather than to specialists who venture into the realm of philosophy,  which is wrong in the end (in this context, by the term ‘philosophical speculation’ I especially mean the knowledge of the basic conditions and concepts that offer a ground to any discipline and that, at the same time, as founding conditions and concepts – e.g., concepts of space, matter, place, time, nature, force, system, process, etc. – are necessarily shared with other disciplines).

The reason for what I consider a methodological shortcoming, common to many disciplines (not just scientific disciplines, I would say), is explained by von Weizsächer himself: ‘Were we to pose these most difficult questions while at the same time practicing science, we would lose the time and energy needed to solve the solvable questions.[3] Even if architects, like me, are not scientists in the traditional sense of the term, I can confirm it since I experienced it firsthand: the necessity that I felt to make philosophical reflections about those basic questions for my discipline inevitably led me to postpone the daily practice and routines (made of competitions, projects, building sites and constructions, building codes, regulations, etc.) in favour of theoretical inquiry. But, in this precise historical moment, I saw that choice as an epistemological necessity for architecture and not a personal choice. I believe the methodological attitude pointed out by von Weizsächer is fundamentally a short-sighted approach to the thorough study of any discipline; it is especially wrong in an epoch of critical change for mankind, like the one we are currently living, which is labelled under a new proposed name with which we usually characterize geological eras: the Anthropocene. Carl Friedrich von Weizsächer was conscious of the dangers behind that shirt-sighted approach: ‘… science [as a result of that methodological approach] has progressed incredibly fast in comparison with the very slow, highly dubious process of philosophical reflection… [however] we must not deceive ourselves: the methodological procedure of science just characterized has something murderous in it if it no longer knows how questionable it is. Those questions are difficult, but they are not unimportant.[4]

I wish those modes of philosophical reflection and speculation on the basic topics of each specific discipline become a standard within academies and not the pulse of individual research.


[1] Carl Friedrich von Weizsächer, The Unity of Nature, trans. Francis J. Zucker (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1980), 233.

[2] see the Appendix in the article On the Ambiguous Language of Space.

[3] Carl Friedrich von Weizsächer, The Unity of Nature, 233.

[4] Ibid., 233.

Works Cited

von Weizsächer, Carl Friedrich. The Unity of Nature.Translated by Francis J. Zucker. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1980.

Image Credits

Featured Image and image below: I Sette Palazzi Celesti / The Seven Heavenly Palaces, by Anselm Kiefer, Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milano, IT. Photography by Alessandro Calvi Rollino, CC BY-NC-SA.

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